Big fish, big fight: Reelin' in a keeper

Posted: Saturday, April 20, 2002

On April 18, 1997, Brandon O'Neill, his father, Ray, and his friend Joe Johnson were trolling near Homer, off Bluff Point, in Ray's 20-foot skiff. They had caught two 15-pound king salmon.

Then, just after noon, a fish took one of the baits. Brandon grabbed the rod, and the fight was on.

They didn't know what it was, but it felt heavy. They were fishing with light salmon gear, 20-pound line.

Twice, the fish ran, taking probably 200 yards of line each time, Ray said. They followed it. Forty-five minutes after hooking the fish, Brandon was able to bring it up.

"When I first saw it, about five feet down, I thought it was a big skate," Ray said. "Then, I realized it was a big halibut."

A thrashing halibut can wreak havoc in a small boat. When one weighs 100 pounds, or so -- and this one definitely did -- Alaska anglers usually shoot it with a .410 shotgun or a large-caliber pistol. The only gun Ray had aboard was a .22 pistol.

Holding the inadequate pistol six inches from the fish's head, Ray shot twice. The fish dove to the bottom.

Brandon pumped and reeled. Thirty minutes later, the fish again surfaced. Ray shot again, several times.

"After about the sixth shot, it went down again," he said.

On this dive, Brandon's rod broke. Undeterred, they tied his line to another outfit and cut the broken one loose.

Again, Brandon pulled the fish up. Again, Ray shot. The fish was stunned, just hanging there with its mouth open. Joe took a chance. With rope in hand, he thrust his arm through the yawning mouth and out the gills, just in time. The fish started thrashing.

Ray had gaffed the fish. Now, the gaff hook broke. Fortunately, Joe's rope held. While the fish beat the water to a froth, Ray got a rope around its tail.

"Right then, Brandon's hook fell out," Ray said. "On that little salmon hook, it had been just barely hooked."

The battle had lasted 2 1/2 hours. Back in Homer, most of the charter outfits were still closed for the winter. The only scale around had a 300-pound limit. The fish pegged the scale.

Ray said the biggest halibut he had ever caught was a 150-pounder, caught on heavy halibut gear. Brandon had never caught one before, except maybe a small "chicken," he said.

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